The State of Oncology Practice: A Discussion With Anupama Kurup Acheson, MD

Published: Wednesday, Oct 02, 2013
Dr. Anupama Kurup Acheson

Anupama Kurup Acheson, MD

Increasing financial and administrative pressures—exacerbated by the federal sequester and continued rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—have created instability and uncertainty for oncology practices nationwide. To better understand how oncology practices are adapting to these environmental stressors, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) launched the National Census of Oncology Practices to collect practicelevel data on the organizational, staffing, and service changes of oncology practices across the United States.

For an expert interpretation of the census data and its impact on independent oncology practices, we discussed the current state of oncology practice with Anupama Kurup Acheson, MD, medical oncologist at Providence Cancer Center Oncology and Hematology Care Clinic and 2013-2014 Chair of the ASCO Clinical Practice Committee.

Acheson’s expert analysis covers practice trends, cost pressures, sequestration, healthcare reform, consolidation, genetic testing, new care delivery models, payment reform, accelerated drug approvals, clinical trials, and quality and value measures.

What are the principal cost pressures affecting independent oncology practices?

Reimbursement for patient care from Medicare poses a major challenge, especially as the medications and technologies we use are bigticket items (see Figure). The system has not been able to keep up with the upward cost curve. Also, with doctors facing the constant specter of severe cuts, the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula represents an enormous impediment to successful healthcare delivery and payment reforms that can improve the quality of patient care while lowering growth in costs. The system is flawed and in need of a major overhaul, and it’s never been more important for oncologists to play a role in shaping the future of the payer system while also ensuring we are able to deliver high-quality, high-value care.

Another trend is that newer drugs typically cost a lot. Some specialty drugs, which are especially complex, also require management, particularly of toxicity. Different pharmacies offer varying levels of support, and so it’s very much part of our job to assist our patients while also helping them work out insurance coverage. This involves a major effort on the part of our office staff to accommodate payers, who request information in different ways; it’s not consistent.

Practices are also bearing the burden of the cost of some of these drugs. Chemotherapy drugs comprise the largest single expense for community oncology practices. These costs include purchasing the drugs, special storage and inventory costs, safe handling, and specialized staff to mix and administer the drugs as well as to monitor the patient during treatment.

The federal sequester has also had a significant impact on the bottom line. In a recent ASCO survey on the effects of sequestration, of the more than 500 practices that responded, 80% said they’d been impacted in some way. Fifty percent said they could not continue to care for Medicare patients without supplemental insurance, and about half said they were redirecting 10% to 50% of their patients to hospitals for chemotherapy. Around 14% said they were no longer taking Medicare patients.

What impact is the ACA having on independent oncology practices?

Under the ACA, physicians must participate in the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS) by 2015. The good news is that the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services (CMS) has released criteria for the approval of existing, qualified registries as a reporting device under the PQRS. ASCO is working with CMS to ensure that our Quality Oncology Practice Initiative (QOPI) would meet these requirements. A major issue the law did not address is the SGR formula. This reimbursement formula is really flawed, especially in light of expected increases in costs and the aging of the population. Physicians would like to get away from the SGR, as it creates intense instability within oncology and the larger practice environment. We are aware that we will be seeing more patients under ACA, but we’re still waiting to see when and how the law will have an impact on practices.

What are recent trends in services that independent practices are providing, and what market or regulatory forces are driving these?

Last year, ASCO launched its first national oncology census to better understand these trends and found that just over 40% of practices were providing chemotherapy onsite, almost 30% were offering social services, and 23% nutritional counseling (see Figure). A quarter of practices had lab services onsite, and 26% were involved in clinical trials. The 2013 census is now open and we will be looking to its results for trend analysis.

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